Sawi Series: "I had to beg on Makati streets for love"
Valentine's Day is when you're most aware of your loved ones—not just of your significant other, but of your family, friends, the people around you. But it also makes you fully realize the love that you don't have. Hence, our Sawi Series, which we are dedicating to the other, less promulgated side of the love parade. Taking our cue from Alain de Botton's The Consolations of Philosophy (2000), writer Lio Mangubat talks about the frustrations of not having enough money.
Around 11 years ago I worked at an office jammed behind a mall food court, writing 300-word pieces on cartoon shows and watching rats skitter acrobatically across the rafters. All throughout the day fumes from dozens of burners would seep in through the walls until your clothes smelled like gasul. When it was time to clock out I would reluctantly peel myself off my chair and stumble out of there. It was a good gig, but I could never hold on to any money. If I had a date that night I would pray fervently that we would go dutch.
The girl I was seeing at the time worked nights at a call center in Makati, back when those were new and novel things. I didn’t own a car—I didn’t even know how to drive one—so this was our routine: after I got off work I’d meet her in neutral territory, ride shotgun in her car until she arrived at her office, then I’d take a bus to go home. She was sweet and never once mentioned anything about how I smelled.
In those days you could feel the city settling itself onto its haunches and sweating out, by sheer force of will, its dubious visions of modernity. Great holes were being dug, and in a few years or so would sprout new steel buildings. Restaurants and convenience stores were wising up to the fact that the city now worked itself to the bone round the clock, and needed, every few hours, to have a smoke, take stock, raise eyes to a skyline being built in fits and starts.
At that moment, glittering buildings around me and the night laid out like a concrete wash, I felt invincible and completely alone.
But back then it was still possible for a pares seller to set up shop in the middle of two major Makati streets when night shift was already kicking in. This is where I would go and eat after “dropping off” my date. Twenty-five pesos got you sandy fried rice and a thick soup, which would be deftly scooped into bowls wrapped in plastic. After dinner I’d belch and wash it down with a tin cup of water from a cooler; the vendor would pull the plastic off the dishes and quickly rinse the cups in a nearby basin. It was night—you didn’t need to see, or know, the color of that water.
One time, I was heading my way out of the call center lobby when I realized that my wallet had lied. I thought there was still a folded, forgotten 50-peso bill somewhere inside, but when I pulled open its deceitful lips it turned out to be empty. There wasn’t even a 20. It was the day before sweldo—katapusan, petsa de peligro, however you want to call it—and there was suddenly an icy feeling in my brain that I was totally out of cash.
My ATM was surly and uncooperative, refusing, even after two tries, to spit out even just one hundred-peso bill. My bank account was drained. I rubbed the sweat off my chest with the front of my shirt and rummaged through my pockets. I still had some loose change, plus a Pilot sign pen that I carried around, my cellphone, and several balls of lint. My place was in Pasig, and I was marooned in the middle of Makati. I had no idea how I was going to get home.
Looking back at it years later, I would always ask myself why I never thought of texting anyone—family, friends, the girl I was dating—to ask for help. It was certainly possible that I had no load at the time, but I remember distinctly that the idea never even crossed my mind. In that earnest time, Manila’s feckless self-belief had infected me. At that moment, glittering buildings around me and the night laid out like a concrete wash, I felt invincible and completely alone.
I knew exactly what I would do. I would beg for my fare home.
I went up to the pares stand. There were around four guys there, finishing up their bowls. I went up to the middle of them, brought out my pen, and offered to sell it to them, for the low, low price of ten pesos.
They all ignored me.
I knew exactly what I would do. I would beg for my fare home.
I tried again. “Sir, sampung piso lang po.” I brandished the pen again. It was a damn good deal. I would take it, if our positions were reversed. I would write with that pen, nod at its fine qualities, pat myself on the back at such a wise and excellent purchase.
I asked the vendor if he had 10 pesos to spare. He stared at me, pulled a plastic bag over a bowl, and began serving a brand-new customer. An image seared itself into my head: me washing those glasses, all for some loose change.
I walked a few blocks. Some time before I had tried walking from Marcos Highway to our house in Pasig. It had taken two hours and change. I wondered if a walk from Makati would be longer, or shorter. I thought of coming home, smooth and wet from exertion, at just past midnight, and staggering straight to bed without even changing my clothes. I thought of all the pares stops and bus stations and pedestrians I would pass along the way, and all the spirited begging I would have to do to every one of them.
I tried again on a nearby fishball stand, where one guy was busy prodding at a bubbling frying pan with a stick. He listened, stone-faced, as I brought the pen right in front of his nose. He said that it was all right, and that I could put the pen away. Before he turned away he handed me 10 pesos.
I thanked him politely, with a slight nod. Dignity turned me rigid; it was the only thing keeping my legs from buckling in relief. I had money. God, I had money.
It was 11 years ago since that happened. Me and that girl, we’d already long since broken up. I haven’t eaten pares in a long time. These days I never worry about load, and while money remains a nagging concern, I have savings in the bank, and—knock on wood—never again need to lurch from paycheck to paycheck. I’d like to think that I’m smarter with my cash. I take the bus rarely, because I had saved up enough to buy a car.
Sometimes when I walk through the streets, there would be someone on the street corner, asking for money for a fare to go back home to the province. I would stare at my feet, quicken my pace, and pretend not to hear. Around us are towering condos, office buildings, the newest, shiniest mall...dozens of people, too, quickening their pace, walking away from that deep, nagging suspicion that, in this gleaming, hopeful city, you’re almost always alone.